Mark Petchey names his top three Australian tennis players of all time
Can Mark Petchey whittle down Australia's tennis legends into a top three? Yes - but not easily...
Last Updated: 08/01/14 1:01pm
With the 2014 Australian Open kicking off on January 13, we asked Sky Sports pundit Mark Petchey to select his top three players to have emanated from Down Under, and explain why they are so special.
Petchey found the task far from easy but after omitting greats like 12-time Grand Slam champion Roy Emerson and deadly doubles duo The Woodies (aka Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde), he settled on a terrific trio...
There have been so many iconic and hugely-successful Australian players but you have to start with Laver, who transcended the sport of tennis and probably made it what it is today.
Rod played in both the amateur and professional eras and dominated both of them in the late 1960s, but his swashbuckling style of play - you don't get the name 'Rocket' for nothing - also made him so popular and memorable.
There are so many stories you hear about Laver but the one that stands out for me is when he was training in Rockhampton, Queensland hitting the ball as hard as he could and the people watching said: 'If this guy ever hits the ball inside the court, he will be virtually unplayable!'
That's what happened and when you have a conversation about the greatest player of all time Rod has to feature, while he has also remained such a humble guy despite winning the career Grand Slam twice, once as an amateur and once as a pro.
I've heard people say that, even if it was just once, they would have liked Rod to have come out and said: 'Yes, I am one of the greatest players ever' but that is a sentence he would never utter.
When he says he is deeply humbled and almost embarrassed to have had an arena named after him in Melbourne he means it, as he feels there are figures in Australian tennis who deserve to have that honour bestowed upon them more than him.
But to stand out in Australian tennis terms amongst all the stars there have been, including coaches like Harry Hopman, is tribute to what a great person and player he was.
He was the poster boy for the professional game when it had detractors and when he was forced to move away from the game a little bit due to Father Time catching up with him, he left the sport in a better state than when he found it.
That's all you can really ask of someone.
I think Lleyton was a little unfortunate in that he came into prominence off the back of another icon in Pat Rafter, someone who encapsulated the serve-and-volley way Australian tennis players earned their glory.
Hewitt, though, burst on the scene with his tenacious baseline game and had disputes with the ATP, so you kind of felt the Australian public struggled to warm to him at the start as they wanted him to be a carbon copy of Pat, something he was never going to be.
Lleyton's success was always going to be based on his never-say-die spirit and his Jack Russell-like attitude of wanting to get his teeth into someone and refusing to let go - and he has never been anything other than himself.
He didn't have overwhelming power but he had this canny knack of knowing where to put the ball and what to do when people were coming in against him because he was very intelligent as well as determined.
I remember after he dismantled Pete Sampras in the 2001 US Open final, Pete said he was the best bad-weather player he had ever played against and I can see where he was coming from; when it's blowing a gale at Flushing Meadows it's hard to play but it's where Lleyton had lots of his success.
Hewitt has never had things easy - he used to drive an hour and a half each way to practice when he was growing up to get what he felt was the best coaching - and he has proved a lot of people wrong over the years.
But I think the lack of top Australian talent in the game today has made people appreciate how great he was and have deep warmth for him, something you could see when he beat Roger Federer to win the Brisbane International last weekend.
Lleyton has carried the flag for Australian tennis and the fact he keeps battling on despite having made lots of money and suffering with injury shows you how determined he still is to mix it with the best.
He will head into the Australian Open in good form - and with the belief that he can win it.
I am doing a disservice to people like Hopman - a 16-time Davis Cup winner and former coach to John McEnroe and Peter Fleming - as well as Frank Sedgman, Roy Emerson, Lew Hoad and the great Woodforde-Woodbridge doubles partnership by not selecting them.
But Rafter has to be my number three because he embraced the challenge of trying to play his style of tennis and there was always great excitement when he took on one of the game's premier baseliners.
Pat's matches with Andre Agassi generated some of the best tennis you will ever see as you had the out-and-out attack of Rafter - not just serve and volley but chipping and charging, too - against someone who was permanently placed on the baseline.
If you look at the stats from their encounters, there were very few unforced errors but tons of winners, and I think that appealed to the masses and not just your tennis aficionados, like myself, who can appreciate any kind of match.
Pat was one of the best serve and volleyers of his generation - he even got to the semi-finals of the French Open playing that way - and had a great aura about him every time he set foot on court.
Grand Slams duly came - he won the US Open on two occasions, most notably from a British perspective against Greg Rusedski in 1997 - and definitely played his part in that epic final at Wimbledon in 2001 against Goran Ivanisevic.
Plus, he is also one of the world's most down-to-earth and genuine human beings - I remember at one of the indoor European events he gave back his earnings because he lost in the first round and didn't think he deserved the reward.
How many players do that sort of thing?
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